Texas Y’all. Texas.

texas flag
     The look on my wife’s face was one-third shock and two-thirds bewilderment. Hustling through the concourse at the airport in Austin, Texas, I’d just revealed to her that despite my love of bouncing around to see live music in different locales, this was the first time my feet were actually on the ground in Texas.   “Really?” she said, confused by the revelation.  So naturally, in order to scratch the Texas-itch, we jumped boots-first into the Lone Star state experience, where I realized that yes, in fact, everything is bigger. And so it seemed that the only way to really get this state would be to roll up the sleeves on my western shirt (metaphorically of course, the western look wouldn’t be kind to me.)  and go to Austin and ring in the arrival of 2015 with Texas’ favorite son, Willie Nelson. Coupled with the fact that the show was a double bill with Sturgill Simpson, currently the single best thing in country-or any music for that matter-I was sold.
     Arriving in Austin it was rainy and cold, and while it was winter time, I still expected to at least see some sunshine.  I wanted a big, round, Texas sun to beat down on me, but the gray sky and spitting rain would have to suffice.  Gray skies, ok, i’ll deal.  But once we were on the ground I was a little underwhelmed at how un-Texas things seemed.  The weather was gloomy, and there wasn’t exactly a burst of energy running down 6th street.  The buzz in town was nowhere to be found, so I chalked it up to a city nursing the holiday hangover. No big hats, no boots, and no one stopping me on the street, unprompted, to tell me why Texas should just say screw it, and be it’s own country.  I wasn’t quite feeling Texas.
     As we walked up to the Moody Theatre though, things changed.  Perhaps it was the people who had gotten dressed up in their New Year’s blingy best, the 8-foot tall bronze statue of Willie Nelson outside the theater situated on Willie Nelson Boulevard, or seeing Jesse Plemons, who most of us know as Landry from the Austin-centric show Friday Night Lights, but now…..now we were in Texas. There was buzz, there was action, and I thought dammit, maybe this place just should be it’s own country.
     The corridors of the theater, lined with portraits of Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Janis Joplin, buzzed and it was obvious that while this is the more recent home of Austin City Limits, the thirty-eight year tradition of the longest running music show in American history isn’t lost on anyone.  Not having a ten gallon hat or a good pair of boots made me feel a little left out.  My ball cap and pair of New Balances wasn’t cutting it.  Although, Willie’s affinity for New Balance did give me some redemption.
     It’s hard to write anything about Sturgill Simpson that hasn’t already been said.  A Kentucky native who found his way to Nashville after a spell in Utah as a railroad worker, he’s a country music throwback who is burning white-hot at the moment. His album, Metamodern Sounds In Country Music was perched atop every album of the year list that music critics love and musicians loathe.   His voice sounds hauntingly like the whiskey-stained timbre of Waylon Jennings, something Simpson has grown tired of hearing but has learned to accept.  My iTunes account has long given up keeping count the number of times I’ve played the album.
Sturgill Stage

Courtesy Nathan Malone

     There are few musicians who I’ve become a bigger fan of in a smaller amount of time than Simpson.  And while he is country, he’s twisted the script a bit, singing country songs about LSD and other altered-state musings, broken hearts with the proverbial painful breakup song Water In A Well, and has covered the 80’s classic The Promise.  I could spend another three paragraphs extolling the virtues of Sturgill Simpson, but I won’t bother. Just listen.
Willie 2

Courtesy Nathan Malone

 
     My fear in seeing Willie Nelson for the first time, at his age, would be that he’s moved beyond the point of playing, and just going through the motions.  There’s no shortage of legends who maybe went on a little longer than they should have. And while Willie hasn’t ever been a jump around the stage kind of guy, I wanted to at least get the impression he was still in it because he loved it.  As The Redheaded Stranger strolled out to the stage with signature braids and cowboy hat, and the massive Texas state flag hung behind him and his band, my fears were assuaged.  He was nimble, he was smiling, and didnt waste anytime giving the house what they wanted and how they wanted it.  All the classics from start to finish with The Family behind him.  The crowd went berserk, and it was clear that yes, Texas loves Willie and in turn, Willie. Loves. Texas.
Wille 1

Courtesy Nathan Malone

 
     He dove head first into a set that reminded me just how many damn Willie Nelson songs we all know.  He’s forgotten more songs than I’ve ever heard. Everyone knows the standards, but I had completely forgotten about Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain.  I’d forgotten that he made Crazy one of the quintessential American country songs, not Patsy Cline.  And find me someone who hasn’t teared up during Always On My Mind and I’ll show you a liar.  After breezing through the low gears,Willie put his foot on the clutch, and up-shifted into Good Hearted Woman.  The place lost their collective consciousness.  One of the greatest sing-alongs of all time, it was Austin and it was Willie.  The crowd was firing the chorus right back at him, and Willie and the audience were carrying the place at their we’re-Texans-dammit best.  I even violated my self-imposed concert edict to never use a phone to record, ever. Sometimes you bend the rules.  The only thing missing was the smell of whiskey, tobacco, and a big-haired bartender named Linda slinging Lone-Stars and Shiners.
Courtesy Nathan Malone

Courtesy Nathan Malone

As Willie stood at the front of the stage, I couldn’t help but stare at that guitar-my god, that guitar-that has forty plus years of road wear dripping from the bridge to the headstock.  If it could talk, it would sound like Sam Elliott. And on top of everything else, you won’t find an octogenarian as cool as Willie. This is after all, the man who got former president Jimmy Carter to sit in on harmonica, and introduced him by saying “play it Jimmy!” THAT my friends, is clout.

     Finding Texas took a day, but Willie was the kickstart required really get down to the nitty-gritty of the place, and see it for all it is.  I stood outside the famous state capitol, the only capitol in America taller than the US Capitol.  Because of course it is, it’s Texas.  I walked past the 11 foot statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan, drove past the empty shell of a building that used to be Antone’s, the iconic club that launched Vaughn’s career and was home to The Fabulous Thunderbirds.  I drove across the campus of UT, threw up the hook ‘em horns sign, and drank a Lone Star, which is nothing more than Pabst Blue Ribbon with a Texas twist. I saw the weirdness of Austin, which is weird, not just a catchy phrase to slap on a bumper sticker.  How many cities have a funeral home, gas station, taco stand and million dollar home all on the same block?  And my wife and I spent an afternoon driving around to the filming locations of Friday Night Lights, letting out our inner TV nerd.  It was a slow start, but we did Texas.  And when we got on the plane to head home, I figured despite a slow start, the Lone Star State wasn’t going to let me down, and it didn’t.  On the road again, Willie.  On the road again indeed.
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Loud Whistles And The Letter S

My grandmother had the strongest and most accurate arm in the history of the world.  When I was 10 years old, I saw its fury and precision up close. At 10 years old, living with your grandparents for a summer wasn’t the coolest thing in the world.  But when your grandparents lived on an island in the West Indies, well, that changed things a little.  It was summer camp on steroids.  My grandfather had been in the Caribbean for years because of his work in international development, and my parents threw me on an airplane and sent me south for the summer. They lived in a house where the windows were always open, the breeze was constant, and the tropical air provided its share of 8-legged house guests. Walking through the kitchen one morning, I noticed there was a mosquito on the wall, oblivious to its fate.  But that poor mosquito, he was oblivious to the fact my grandmother had seen him.  In one fluid motion, my grandmother removed her shoe, fired it across the room, and brought the mosquito’s life to a swift and violent end.  I, and seemingly life, stopped and stood still for a second.  She picked up her shoe, put it back on her foot, and went back to making breakfast. I was stunned.  Grandmothers weren’t supposed to be able to do that.  But mine was and mine did. You should have known her.

Grammy

My grandmother was superhuman.  I don’t say that as a cheap attempt at hyperbole, either.  She did things grandmothers weren’t wired to do.  She played football in the front yard with my friends, running circles around all of us.  She spent thousands of spring Saturdays on the riding mower, and tending to her flowers.  She openly defied the concept of aging.  When age caught up with her, and she couldn’t cut the grass, she stewed watching it grow long.  Grammy had one of those two finger whistles-my god, that whistle-that could roust a bear from hibernation. She’d stand on those Barbados beaches, and unleash the shrill on me and everyone around her, signaling the time to get out of the water had arrived.

What made my grandmother different wasn’t necessarily her physical traits, the whistle, or her arm.  That was the peripheral stuff.  My grandmother taught me. And she taught my brother and sister.  And she taught everyone around her.  Be it her 30 years as a Girl Scout leader, her time teaching sewing, literacy and financial management to women in developing countries, establishing resource programs for women all over the Caribbean, my grandmother was a teacher.  She had knowledge, and keeping it to herself would have been of no service to anyone.  Grammy identified needs, and Grammy addressed them.  She got things done.

There were the countless afternoons playing Scrabble with my grandmother. I loved it.  And she loved it.  It was those games, those afternoons that she taught me the importance of the letter S.  I’d spelled out a word on the board, only to have her counter by attaching an S and starting an entirely new word, burying me under the crushing weight of her vocabulary.  She’d had a 50-year head start on me, after all. 60 points later, she’d turned one word into two. She wasn’t softened by the fact she was playing against her 11 year-old grandson. She never resisted the opportunity to teach me. Why settle for one, when you can make two? There isn’t a letter S I’ve played in Scrabble that hasn’t reminded me of that day.  We’d spend hours around her dining room table dropping those letter tiles. I’m certain she beat me. Every. Single. Time.  Letting me win wouldn’t have taught me anything, of course.

My grandmother had an uncanny ability to make something out of nothing. Not in the metaphorical way, but literally, could make a prom dress out of newspaper and scotch tape. I told you she was superhuman.  She had the same Swiss Army Knife for 30 years.  I’m pretty sure she built a house with it once.  Her purse was a toolbox.  Utility knives, sewing needles, maybe even a circular saw if you looked deep enough. It’s no wonder then, that a lot of my memories of my grandparent’s house meant Friday nights watching McGyver.  She could change a tire with a rolling pin.

Grammy Seated

For years, there was a framed note on the wall in my grandparents’ house, which I’d never stopped long enough to examine. And when I finally slowed down long enough to look, I noticed Jackie Kennedy’s signature at the bottom.  I’d never heard the story until I asked, but my grandmother had volunteered in the days and weeks following the assassination of John F. Kennedy writing thank you notes to those who had sent condolences to the First Lady.  She must have written thousands of those notes.  There were needs at the time, and she addressed them.  She got things done.

On Christmas Eve Grammy looked me directly in the eye and smiled for the last time. There hadn’t been a lot of that lately.  But this time, she looked me right in the eyes, and her smile, which didn’t exactly have the brightness I was used to, said everything.  She opened her mouth to speak, but somewhere on the path between her mouth and her brain, the words had decided to go in a different direction.  So she stopped, she paused.  No point in speaking if it’s not going to be right. Always teaching. T-E-A-C-H-E-R.  That’s a 12-point word. But tack an S on the end-that opens up all kinds of possibilities.

Thirteen Point One.

I’m not going to explain how horrible training for a half marathon was.  I won’t tell you all about how I’ve never run much, am completely out of shape, and had no business running 13.1 miles on Thanksgiving morning, in sub-freeing temperatures.  I won’t lament, I won’t complain.   But to understand, I’m going to have to come clean here.  I have a hard time sticking to things. I’m easily distracted.  I’m all in, all for it, until a new shiny thing comes along. Sign me up.  Let’s do this.  Until of course, the next thing. It’s a vicious cycle.  So committing to running a half marathon was going to take some diligence.

Five months ago my sister Emmalee, who had a half-marathon under her belt, and my wife Jessica who had a number of races, a triathalon, and some half marathons on her running resume decided the Atlanta Half-Marathon on Thanksgiving Day would be ours.  We’d run the 13.1 partly because of the weather of the training season, and mostly because we wanted a plate full of sweet potatoes later without feeling guilty about it.  Yeah, that’s it.  The date was circled, and we stepped off into the great running yonder.  I was apprehensive, and worried I’d fail miserably, being led off the path by that next shiny thing to come along.  I realized early on the importance of running with Jessica and Emmalee.  At the first signs of slow-down, they’d push me. And push me again.

Andrew Jessica Emmalee Candid

The early runs weren’t difficult, but it wasn’t lost on me that this was going to get harder.  And it got harder quick.  3 miles was relatively mild.  4 miles wasn’t insurmountable, but about the time we started five-mile runs, things were getting difficult. 6 miles turned into 7, 9 turned into 10.  The strange thing about running is the evolution.  The jog to the stop sign turns into the jog to the mailbox, which becomes the run to the intersection, and then becomes the run to the post office.

Our strategy was simple: don’t speak much during the week, save all your discussion topics for the run.  I never said much, I was to busy gasping for breath.  But I’d run, listen to them, and before long, our weekly runs became a thing.  It completed the weekend.  It actually became something I looked forward to.  I’d kick and scream about it the entire time, but deep down I had some excitement about it.  And soon I realized our runs were a little less about the run, and more about us.  It’s one thing to run, but it’s another thing to run together.  The miles go by faster, and the pain isn’t as bad when you’re all sore from top to bottom.

Once race day came, and we stood at the starting line, I had some nerves-I’d never actually gone 13 miles.  We’d topped out at 12, just like the training schedule said, but I figured hey, 12, 13, at that point, it’s all the same, right? Wrong. Very wrong.  But we treated it like any other run, it just so happened there were 14 thousand other people running that morning. Oh, and it was 22 degrees at the start. And I had snot frozen on my face.  Totally normal. Until the last two miles.

Passing the 11 mile marker, I was sore.  I was tired.  And I had blown off my wife’s advice to not chug water. I chugged, and gasped, and paid the price. The water shot through my calves, locking them up like a jail cell door. I should have listened. But I didn’t. And she knew it.  You were right, Jessica. You were right.

Jessica Andrew Emmalee

As we turned the corner, Emmalee ahead and Jessica running shotgun with me, I realized that the finish line wasn’t really what this was all about.  It wasn’t the end.  The hard part was actually over, and it wasn’t about the race.  It was about the 8am morning runs, when it was just the three of us in August and the temps were already in the 90’s .  It was about us running, having coffee after, and bestowing our grossness on the customers at Einstein’s. That’s what this was about. And it was about the text messages the night before training runs that said “do we HAVE to run tomorrow?” Yes, you guys, we do.  And yes, we did.

I Got Over It……For 3 Minutes.

I’ve got a few fears.  Some may argue I’ve got too many fears. But  #1 is snakes, and #1A is heights. Being afraid of heights is a bit complicated.  Those who don’t share the fear are mystified at understanding it, and those who are cursed with it haven’t got the words to really convey what it feels like. Knees rattle, chests tighten, and throats swell. And flying doesn’t really count.  Being enclosed in a massive tube powered by jet engines 20 thousand feet off the ground doesn’t necessarily pack the same fright-induced punch as standing on an observation deck, or dangling from a tree with a climbing harness on. (Did it once. Won’t ever do it again.) And for those who share this fear, you know what I’m saying. Those who don’t, well, you just won’t understand.  I’ve spent 25 harrowing minutes inside the London Eye.  I’d come dangerously close-no, really, all kidding aside-to passing out on the Stone Mountain cable gondola.  And once, battling a fit of insanity, I’d ridden the glass elevator at the Downtown Atlanta Westin.

This past week I found myself alone at Disney World.  My wife was working in Orlando, and with the opportunity to dip my toe in the Disney World waters for the first time, I wandered through the  Animal Kingdom theme park solo. Once I got past the bizarre and very creepy feeling of being a grown man alone in a theme park with at least 6 million children, I stood at the entrance to the park’s largest roller coaster, Expedition Everest. I hadn’t ridden a roller coaster in easily 20 years, and as I contemplated getting in this rolling metal chamber of death, I realized that at the age of 33, maybe it was time to take this fear on.  I had enjoyed roller coasters in the past, primarily because they go to fast and are over to soon to even worry about heights, but this time it was different. Hearing the blood curdling screams of its passengers certainly didn’t help matters. And while the lines for rides at Disney World can stretch just north of 3 miles long, I noticed the line for single riders was claiming a five minute wait.  And before I had time to dwell on it, I found myself in line, with just four people between me and the peril that awaited me on the other side.  Four people became three, three became two, and then I was up.  Gulp.

Seriously, when was the last safety inspection?

Seriously, when was the last safety inspection? Why is no one asking these things?

Climbing into the car, I pulled down the safety bar, and couldn’t help but have a little worry when the 16 year old kid who was working for 7 dollars an hour walked by during his safety check and said “that should be fine.” Right. Thanks, Tommy. Glad your concern for my safety is paramount here. The guy seated next to me said if I was going to get back into roller coasters then this was the one to do it.  Thanks bud, but I’m not in the mood to chat.  His sage advice meant one thing to me: time to change my pants. And in mid thought, the cars lurched forward, ripped us around a turn, where it began the slow, torturous climb up the first hill.  It’s the hill all roller coasters have, just long enough to allow riders like me to contemplate the little things, like what we’ve done with our lives, who will get all our worldly possessions.  Creeping up the hill, Disney World’s Animal Kingdom grew smaller and smaller below me, with each hair raising click of the tracks. And as we crested the hill, we were thrust into a lightning fast series of turns, curves, and stomach shredding falls.  And as we got through the first half of the ride, something weird happened to me.  I was alive, my heart hadn’t stopped, the cars were still attached to the tracks (i figured) and as we were tossed from one side of the ride to the other, I smiled.  I’d been thrashed with fear, but with each turn, I couldn’t help but laugh.  The safety bar across my lap stayed intact, the tracks hadn’t collapsed, and the bolts holding the ride together hadn’t rattled loose-all things I was sure would happen.  I realized this was not in fact the certain death I thought it would be. I’d live. I wouldn’t need to find a home for all my possessions, and I wouldn’t have to change my pants.  As the cars came to a screeching halt at the end of the ride, I turned to my partner, and laughed.  I’d learned to let go a little bit. 16 year old Tommy, who was responsible for hitting the ride’s start button every two minutes hadn’t let anything happen to me.  He cared.  I think.

As I climbed out of the car, I got back in line for another go. And then another. And another.  And then two more.  7 runs in 40 minutes.  And just as I was beginning to accept the change that had come to me, on the 7th run, the cars stopped on that first hill.  A complete standstill. Seated, with just a silver bar between me and the park 13 stories below, the panic was coming back. A malfunction? I was sure of it. Waiting for the other riders to finish? Maybe.  After all, I hadn’t considered a mid-ride collision with another set of riders.  And sitting there, for what seemed like ages, i shut my eyes, and started counting.  And just like that, the ride was off again.  As long as this thing was moving I was aces, and my stomach was returning to it’s normal state.  Expedition Everest certainly didn’t rid me of acrophobia.  It’s still there, and in a very big way.  But its possible it got me one smaller step towards getting on this thing one day.

7th Grade, Baseball Cards And A Lesson In Perspective

In the 7th grade, I was obsessed with baseball. Like all the other 7th grade boys that have ever existed in the world, I was less interested in my math homework and more concerned with the batting average of Juan Gonzalez.  (.310 in 1993 with 46 home runs-the guy could RAKE it.)  I was a Baltimore Orioles fan, and there wasn’t anything that looked more regal to me than the Orioles uniforms. White jerseys, with Orioles written in script across the front, they were stop-traffic awesome to me. And specifically, #8.  Cal. Ripken. Junior. There were posters on my wall, Wheaties boxes on my dresser, and to that point, I’d managed to get every Cal Ripken baseball card that existed. There were hundreds of them. I woke up in the morning wondering what he had done the night before, since I was usually in bed by the time the games ended. In my house, he was just Cal.

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I’m over it now. Really.

There was no way I’d get control of the main television in the house, so I holed up in my parents room watching games on a small television, with my baseball glove on. This was my existence. Some time around the winter of 1993, I managed to get an address for Cal Ripken’s home after a trip to the library. And as soon as I realized the wonders of the US postal system, I put a 1991 Topps Cal Ripken baseball card in an envelope, sent it off with an autograph request, convinced it would return in a week.  My parents tried hiding their skepticism, but I knew. They were encouraging, telling me that of course Cal will sign the card, and that of course it will come back in a week. But they knew. They didn’t say it, but I knew. Good luck with that, son.  My plan was foolproof though, because after all, it was the offseason. What else did Cal Ripken have to do but sit around and field autograph requests from 7th graders all over the country? My timing was everything.  I’ll show them.

Weeks passed. Winter turned to spring. Spring training began and I checked the mail every day finding only coupons, flyers, and mail not addressed to me. With each passing day, my hope began to diminish, but it never disappeared. And every night I watched those same Orioles, and I watched Cal, wondering if he’d gotten my card, with his address scrawled on the front in pencil. And whenever I began to give up hope, he’d hit a home run or go 3 for 4 with two RBI’s, I’d forget about it, and all would be right with my 7th grade world.

One afternoon in the middle of the school year, I came home, and before I started my homework, my mom pointed to an envelope on the table. I never got mail. 7th graders don’t get mail. But this afternoon, it was different. It was simply addressed “Andrew Iden” with my address written out on the front. And as I opened the envelope, there was a feeling of euphoria that I hadn’t experienced before. There in the envelope was the baseball card I’d sent away months ago. And in blue marker, splashed across the front of the card, was the name. The signature. Oh, the signature. Cal. Ripken. Junior.  It was otherworldly.  There was no note, no accompanying letter, nothing. There was a certain beauty in that, because the signature said everything.  I’m not sure what happened the rest of the evening, but the card never left my sight. My parents didn’t say it, but I think they were as shocked as I was.  Good luck with that, son. 

The next morning, I woke up and looked to make sure the card hadn’t been taken overnight. And as I packed for school, I faced a moment that would haunt me for years. Of course I had to take the card to school. Of course the entire 7th grade class needed to know what I possessed. I was IT. I put the card in the front pocket of my backpack, headed off to school with what was and would still be, my most prized possession. You’ll notice the past tense.  This is one of those stories.

Billy Harper wasn’t a good kid.  A daily discipline problem, he spent most of his time in detention, and looking back now, he almost certainly had a tough time at home. It explains why he lacked any moral compass and in one swift act, pulled the card from my backpack when my back was turned, slid it into his pocket, and took off with it during recess. As I turned around, and caught him in mid-act, I knew what he’d done. I knew what he’d stolen, and in a split second, overcome with confusion, heartbreak and anger, I did what any 12-year-old would do. I told the teacher. Clearly annoyed, Mr. Thompson asked Billy if he took the card, Billy denied it, and that was the end of it.  Billy was a rough kid, and I certainly wasn’t going to take things into my own hands. The scales of justice were certainly not tipped in my favor. In fact, there were no scales of justice here at all. I stood on the playground dumbfounded and confused. And there, in big bright shiny lights, was my first indication that life is in fact, not fair.  As I walked to my mother’s office after school, heartbroken and in an unconscionable state of despair, I began to cry. I’d held it together throughout the day, but the weight had become to great.  For a fleeting moment, I owned the holiest of grails in my 12-year-old world. And like that, it was gone. Poof. Billy Harper had ripped me of happiness, stripped me of pride, and most importantly, made me feel like a fool.

I rehashed the story to my mom through a foggy haze of heartbreak, tears, and snot.  As she looked at me with equal parts sorrow and sternness, she explained to me that my decision to take the card to school was a choice rife with consequence. And now, I’d have to live with that consequence. She was against me, I was sure of it. I stood sobbing, and as far as I was concerned, my mom had failed to see the true tragedy here. She was of course, right. As she always is.

11 years later, I still wasn’t over The Theft.  I know, I know.  Get over it, Andrew.  I was a grown man, and the thought of what happened that day still would give me an uneasy feeling when it crossed my mind. Through circumstances of my job, I was blessed with the opportunity to meet Cal Ripken.  I thought a lot about that day in 7th grade, and whether meeting Cal Ripken would be the antidote that would allow me to shut the door on Billy Harper. As I stood there shaking Cal’s hand, I realized that indeed life is fair.  Because somewhere, Billy Harper was probably struggling. I’m not sure how, or where, but Billy was likely having a rough go of it in his adult life.  The playground injustice had gnawed at me for over a decade, and I’d found closure.  I told Cal what he had meant to me as a kid, and he looked me right in the eye and simply said “Thanks Andrew.” Was it his standard, canned answer to the thousands of 30-year-old men who have said the same thing? Probably. But it seemed genuine to me.  11 years later, I’d gotten the note that he hadn’t written in that envelope. This moment was mine. And it wasn’t Billy Harper’s.

Finally, We’ve Learned.

rg3#2

I’m not really sure when it was, sometime in the mid to late 1990’s I suppose.  The Redskins were playing the Steelers in Pittsburgh, and sitting in my family room with my dad, we were watching yet another meaningless game, at the end of a meaningless season, with any number of meaningless players.  Players I don’t even remember, because frankly, no one remembers them.  The details of the game, I don’t recall, other than the Redskins lost.  What did stand out to me that afternoon was one particular play-the only thing I remember from the game-that encapsulated just how bad things were for the Redskins over the last 14 years.  Quarterback Brad Johnson dropped back to pass, and in a moment of confusion, threw the ball towards tight end Stephen Alexander, where the ball promptly hit Alexander in the butt, and fell to the turf.

That play, at the time, was the worst I’d seen from this team in their years of futility which unbeknownst to me, would last another 11 years. The quarterback was confused, the receiver had no idea what the play was, the offensive line had collapsed, and for 12 years after, that one play would be the symbol to me of what it’s like being a fan of this team.  Last weekend, that all changed.Skins Fans

When the Redskins made the trade for the chance to draft Robert Griffin III, I was ecstatic, but hesitant, even though I wouldn’t admit it. When he was drafted, I was again ecstatic, and again hesitant.  Still afraid to admit it.  I’d been down this road before.  When he and the rest of the team took out the Saints in week one of the 2012 season, I was all but convinced the past was over.  Then, last Sunday night happened.  I stood on the top deck of FedEx Field with my wife, dad and brother, and looked down at the field as Robert Griffin III ran onto the field for warmups.  As he he trotted out, the crowd’s chant grew to a crescendo, and as the noise grew, so did my willingness to let the years of frustration go.  No more “same old Redskins” refrains, no more typical 4th quarter fumbles leading to a loss, no more assumptions that they would find a way to lose.  This crowd and this fan base was eady to run towards optimism, not away from it. We were cleansing ourselves of the negativity that shrouded our Sundays for the last 13 years.  Watching the Redskins that night allowed me to shake the names of Sanders, Haynesworth, Stubblefield, Carrier and Spurrier.  I forgave quarterbacks like Shuler, Frerotte, Banks, Matthews, George, Campbell and Grossman.

With a home playoff game this weekend, the Redskins have-and I almost hold my breath when I say this-turned the corner.  This is a team that matters.  This is a team that people will consider in August, when they jot down the predictions that every football outlet in the world feels compelled to do.  This is a team that will be in the A-block segments of NFL Live, ESPN Sunday Countdown, and all the other NFL shows. This is a team where coaching assistants are considered for head jobs around the league, a place where free agents will consider because there’s something going on here.

Courtesy @soupgfx

Alot has changed since that play in Pittsburgh.  12 years, hundreds of games, a handful of head coaches, and the roster has turned over at least 6 times.   There was one thing that had to change: the culture.  And even though it’s taken a while, and the road was long to get here, I looked around at the crowd last Sunday standing for hours in frigid winds, and realized that yes, it has.  Is this team championship caliber? Possibly.  Are Redskins fans afraid to embrace that? Nope.  We’ve grown up.

I’m Terrible At This, I Know.

Look, I understand this blog has been dormant for a good couple of months.  Mostly because I come up with fantastic ideas to write when I’m sitting in traffic, waiting in line at Target, or standing outside the auto shop getting an oil change.  I can’t help it, my muse is fickle. I also dont write things down when they come to me, and before I know it, three months has elapsed between posts. Or four.  But who’s counting. Coupled with writer’s block, well, i’m a terrible blogger.

What this blog is or will become, that’s still something yet to be determined. It may get some direction, it may never have any at all.  I suppose that’s what is great about it.  Sometimes I’m raving about the ridiculousness of everyday life, like the time a three legged cat almost caused me to rear end a school bus.  (No, really, that happened.) Sometimes I’ll rant about sports, most of the time I’ll have something to say that in the grand scheme of things, isn’t that important.  It will largely go unnoticed, but the fact I’m putting it down on paper (or, well, a computer screen for the sake of this exercise) is really the important part.

I began writing as a kid. My mother got a job as a newspaper reporter, and in an attempt to get me to shut-up while she worked on deadline, she threw me a pen and a reporters notebook.  A few days later, I’d filled the notebook with The Fire Of Doom-my first foray into the written word.  I know…I’m still trying to find time for the second book in the series, The Flames Of Ruin. My mother, god love her, still threatens to pull that gem from the attic when i least expect it.   This wasn’t long before I entered a school Christmas writing contest, where a story about Santa Claus and a jet powered sleigh garnered me a second place ribbon.  I’ll never forget hearing my name over the loudspeaker, as they announced the winners.  Take that Tommy Baldwin.  (Hated that guy.  Dude won everything.  And clearly, his name has been changed….for the sake of this exercise.)

Writing started for me early.  It continued in high school and college when I cut my teeth as a reporter, serving as the primary sports reporter (and by primary, I mean one and only) at the local newspaper. Suddenly, what I said was in print, people read it, and sometimes, wrote me mail.  Once I even ruffled some feathers when I blamed the lack of athletic success at the local high school on talent and desire, instead of a lack of funding and facilities, which was the popular scapegoat for being the league doormat.

Clearly I’ve wandered off the beaten path a bit, but all this is to say that I’m writing things down now.  I’m being a better blogger, in hopes that I can become a better writer.  After all, the world needs the written word, and even more so, they need The Fire Of Doom.  We all do. Don’t we?

This Is The Year……Again.

I told myself I wouldn’t do it this year.  I told myself that unlike the 26 or so other opening days since I began rooting for the Baltimore Orioles, I wouldn’t get caught up in the optimism of spring.  I refused to let the fresh start and hope-filled dreams of a new season take over my normally tempered expectations of what the Orioles could do in 2012.  And you know why? Because I did it last year.  And the year before that.  And the year before that, too.  In fact, going back to say, 1987, to the infancy of my Orioles allegiance, I was plagued with eternal optimism for this club.  I really, really don’t want to expect anything out of this gang of kids, who manager Buck Showalter has convinced me could somehow compete with the likes of the Boston Red Sox and New Yankees in the afternoons of late August and early September.  Dammit Buck, you’ve done it. You’ve got me hoping.

Save for a three-year run in the late 90’s, being a fan of the Orioles hasn’t necessarily been filled with memorable moments.  They’ve cycled through managers at a blinding rate of 12 in the last 26 years.  They’ve shuffled general managers almost as frequently and during this off-season turned to a man who had been out of the league for 9 years to right the ship.  But every year that begins, with it begins a hope that finally they will stand up and let the rest of the league notice there’s someone else at the party aside from the Yankees and Red Sox. But still, no one else is listening.  This is, after all, the team that lost to a community college team yesterday, no matter how you spin it.

I woke up today as I did every year previously.  I knew it was the start of a new season, a very long season in fact-yet somehow had convinced myself that they could win it all on opening day.  Things will change. Foul balls down the line will bounce the other way and become triples in the corner.  Young starting pitchers are all Cy Young Award candidates on a day like this, and will go seven innings instead of four.  And what was once a fly ball caught at the warning track will find just a little more it to get over the left field wall.

Cal Ripken, Roberto Alomar, Mike Mussina and the mid 90’s are all long gone. Brady Anderson is back, but this time as an assistant coach.  What used to be a hope for a 100 win season is now the hope of avoiding a 100 loss season.  The Orioles used to be the hottest ticket in town, they were the penthouse apartment with a skyline view.  Now, the tickets are virtually free, and they’re a burned out house across the tracks.  Except today.  They’ll likely spend the next 161 games toiling in mediocrity at best, futility at worst.  But for today, at least, they are contenders.

I Was Runnnnnn-ing.

I know, this isn’t a blog about working out.  It just so happens that i’ve been pretty focused on that area of things for the last few months, and what can I say, it makes for good copy.  I’ve never been a runner.  In fact, my lack of exercise for the first 30 years of my life is well documented, and truthfully, the running thing was never something that appealed to me.  Exercise, sure, I’d give the gym a go here and there.  But running? Ummm…..no.  No thanks. That’s not really what I “do.”  My wife, prior to our meeting, had always been a runner and had run 5/10K’s, half marathons, and even a finished a triathlon.  She’ll swear it wasn’t a real triathlon and downplay it but i say if you do anything with running, swimming and biking in the same day, you’ve earned your badass card.  And for that, I’m envious of her.  She is a card-wielding badass.

Once we jumped back into the daily exercise regimen, for whatever reason, I began to supplement our morning exercise with runs with her in the evening.  And when it was I decided that yes, I would in fact run, I’m not sure. Call it a whim, or maybe the momentum of our morning workouts, but the idea of pounding the pavement 30 minutes at a time suddenly wasn’t so bad.  And then I started running.  And the moment i put one foot in front of the other, i realized this wasn’t a great idea. The difference between a needing to stop and catch my breath and an oncoming heart attack was blurred. I was clearly not a runner, but a walker who decided to trot every now and then. This. Sucked.

That was two months ago. Since then, with the help of my wife, my sister who also runs, and two dogs who pull incessantly and make running more of a chase than anything, I’ve reached a bit of a milestone. Jessica and I set out on a run on Monday, a modest two mile loop that we’ve done a number of times in the past, but still involves a stop along the way for me to catch my breath and ward off the potential complete shutdown of my respiratory system.  It was also a day i which the pollen count hit over 8,000 so running outside felt akin to jogging while smoking a cigarette.  I’m not sure if that’s actually ever been done, but if so, it has to feel like yesterday.

Halfway through our run my mind was drifting to weird places-wondering what exactly concrete is made of, if the people grilling on their porch were REALLY going to call 911, their faces were drenched with a look of concern.  No, no, I got this, I waved. As I turned the corner to the last half mile stretch of the run, I  thought about all the times I’d heard runners talk about “runners high”, or breaking through the “wall” and finding a place on the run where you aren’t necessarily thinking about the act of running.  Cute, I thought.  That’s not something I’m going to reach, that’s reserved for the folks who put in 8-10 miles a day.  As I kept going things got a little easier with each step, and i realized that I in fact, was there.  I wasn’t thinking about the run.  I wasn’t worried about trying to make it to the next landmark.  It was almost as if I took my hands of the steering wheel, and the car was still going straight.  This was what they were talking about.  This is why people run. This I can sign up for.

I crested the hill that marks the final push of our route and as I hit the finish line, my wife was just a few steps behind me, equal parts happy for the run, and mad at me for pushing past her a mile back.  Having a badass card usually means a competitive card, and she’s got one of those, too.

It’s entirely possible-actually, likely-the next run will be completely devoid of any kind of runner’s high.  I’ve been given a taste of it, and now I’ll expect it every time.  But it’s alright.  Just once was enough, and for now, i’ll keep trying for it.  I’m laced up.  I’m just hoping that at some point, stopping to catch my breath isn’t an actual heart attack.

The Oh My God Everyone Is Sick Of Tebow So Let Me Write About Tebow Blog

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Yup.  Tim Tebow. Because that’s what the world needs.  Another blog writing another entry about another take on the man who can do no wrong.  He hasn’t grabbed the nation’s attention per se, I’d  say he’s walked up, kicked it in the crotch, wrapped his hands round it’s neck, and screamed YOU WILL LISTEN TO ME.  In the nicest, most wholesome way possible, of course.  And as someone who for the last four years has been a bit worn out with the Tebow love, i’m ready to admit it: I’ve converted.  And I’d like to apologize for even using the religious metaphor, It seems anything anyone writes about #15 is compelled to litter their words with church and religion based hyperbole, But in this case, it’s the only thing that fits. I grew tired of him not because of Tebow himself but the insistence from every blue and orange laden Gator freak who insisted he was the second coming. Dammit, I did it again.

When he was was drafted, I assumed his train had come to it’s final stop, and he would fall into line with the rest of the rookies who wind up stringing together a few average years, make a boatload of cash, and then retire and wind up starting a business, or on Tebow’s case, continuing his ministry.  Fair enough.  Thanks for your time Timmy, it was a pleasure having you.

Then he became the starter in Denver.  And again, like most, I assumed he would be quickly weeded out, show that he in fact can’t play at the pro level and return to the bottom of the depth chart, allowing the Broncos to get him out of their system.  Ho hum.

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Then he started winning.  And like most, I figured it was a combination of good luck, matchups, and a whole bunch of mojo that enabled him to lead the Broncos on their mid-season surge that landed them in the postseason.  He kept winning, the drumbeat was getting louder and louder, until the Tebow-mania was consuming our daily lives.  And I was choking on it.  I needed air.

Watching the Broncos beat the Steelers last week turned the tide.  Sometime Saturday night, somewhere in the first half, I learned to love Tim Tebow.  It was the storied Pittsburgh Steelers, against the Broncos, who weren’t even supposed to be there, with a guy who wasn’t even supposed to be starting.  I put my chips down, pushed them to the middle of the green-I was going all in on the Tebow poker table. When he hit Demariyus Thomas for the game winning touchdown in overtime, my conversion was complete. I’d accepted Tebow into my sports life. And dammit, it felt good.

Are the constant references to his faith a little off-putting? Perhaps.  Will he have to, at some pojnt, explain that something other than his faIth was instrumental in throwing 3 touchdown passes? Probably.  But for now, I’ll take it.  Because he, and the rest of the Broncos, are writing a script that we’re all watching, whether we like it or not.  So you might as well embrace it.  It’s just easier in the long run. Oh, and for the sake of clarification, let’s get real on another issue.  God doesn’t care about football games.